Democratic leaders embrace push to unionize congressional staff


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The congressional Democratic leadership is backing a nascent campaign to unionize staffers on the Hill, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expected to hold a vote on the move as early as next week.

Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, threw her support behind an organizing drive by the Congressional Workers Union (CWU) on Thursday.

“Like all Americans, our tireless congressional staff has the right to organize their workplace and join together in a union,” said Drew Hammill, the speaker’s deputy chief of staff. “If and when staffers choose to exercise that right, they would have Speaker Pelosi’s full support.”

Mrs. Pelosi’s support was echoed by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

“Leader Schumer believes that hard-working Senate staff have the right to organize their workplace and if they chose to do so, he would support that effort,” said a spokesperson for the New York Democrat.

Republicans have been silent about the push to unionize congressional staff, but many expect vocal opposition as the organizing effort advances. 

The support came shortly after the CWU, a political advocacy group made up of Democratic hill staffers, announced it would begin the process of trying to form a union.

“After more than a year of organizing as a volunteer group of congressional staff, we are proud to publicly announce our efforts to unionize the personal offices and committees of Congress, in solidarity with our fellow workers across the United States and the world,” the group said in a statement.

At the moment, staffers on congressional committees and in the personal offices of individual lawmakers and congressional leaders are not unionized, despite having the opportunity under the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act.

The law and regulations put forth by the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights allow congressional staffers to organize, provided lawmakers in both the House and Senate passed a resolution enabling unionization.

Allies of Mrs. Pelosi said the House a vote on such a resolution could come as early as next week.

“At the request of the new union, next week we will take legislative action to afford congressional staff the freedom to form a union — a fundamental right of all workers,” said Rep. Andy Levin, Michigan Democrat.

A vote on a similar resolution in the Senate is likely to be tenuous if lawmakers have to abide by the chamber’s 60-vote filibuster threshold. Apart from some tax and spending measures, most legislation has to adhere to the rule to become law.

Since the Senate is split 50-50 between the two parties, the enabling resolution would require the support of at least 10 Republicans along with all 50 Democrats. Advocates of unionizing Senate staffers are exploring whether the resolution could pass via a simple majority.

The push to unionize congressional staff dovetails with a similar push to organize campaign staffers working for Democratic candidates and elected officials. Since the 2020 Democratic primaries, the number of Democratic candidates with unionized campaign staff has grown significantly.

Advocates like those at the CWU point to the low pay and long hours among junior congressional staff as an impetus for unionization. They also note that other federal employees of the legislative branch, including Capitol Police and Government Accountability Office, are unionized.

“While not all offices and committees face the same working conditions, we strongly believe that to better serve our constituents will require meaningful changes to improve retention, equity, diversity, and inclusion on Capitol Hill,” said the CWU. “This starts with having a voice in the workplace.”

Opponents argue the push to unionize congressional staff is part of a bigger shift within organized labor as it moves to court white-collar workers.

“These are no longer the blue-collar unions of our parents’ generation that fought for workers’ rights,” said Suzanne Bates, a senior writer and researcher at the right-leaning Americans for Fair Treatment. “Today, unions organize highly educated ‘elite’ employees from graduate students at universities to journalists, museum staff and now Capitol Hill staffers.”

Mrs. Bates added that the push to unionize Hill staffers was about expanding organized labor’s influence among federal lawmakers at a time when the overall number of union workers was decreasing nationally.

“This expansion on Capitol Hill is about unions building their political capital. It isn’t about the working class and what they need,” she said. “Can you imagine what union meddling could mean for a congressional committee or office?”

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